Mt Kilimanjaro, Tanzania
Kilimanjaro is a mountain icon. Certainly not the highest or the hardest to conquer (around 30% of trekkers fail to summit each year) and not everybody’s favourite, but an icon nonetheless.
The highest point in Africa just south of the equator. Ernest Hemingway wrote a book about it (The Snows of Kilimanjaro), people have cycled up it and tried to reach the top by motorbike. It has been jumped off, conquered by a wheelchair user and summited by a chap with no lower legs who crawled unaided.
Kilimanjaro – a natural wonder that draws people from all treks of life. Just don’t end up like the leopard in Hemingway’s book. Here’s my dust covered story…
Big Tree to Karanga camp
Day 1 – Big Tree camp
After much deliberation, reading guidebooks and net surfing, out of the six popular ascent routes I chose Lemosho. Taking seven days, it promised a better chance of summit success which was fine by me.
Bouncing over rust red roads in an ageing people carrier, everything we passed had a ochre tinge. Crops, shanty towns, even school children were not spared a lung tickling dusting.
Londorossi Gate was our goal where we met our porters and crew. Kit was weighed and fairly distributed. Introductions over and a short drive later, we’re trudging off into beautiful dense forest, alive with birds and monkeys and happy, chattering guides.
At 2700m we hit Big Tree camp (Mti Mkubwa). It’s busy but not crowded. I find my tent and delve into my trip bag. Dinner soon appears, fish and rice, then, as the sun drops by 6pm, it’s sleeping bag time. During the night the sounds of a charging army fills the air. Screaming Colobus monkeys wake the camp.
Day 2 – Shira camp via Shira Plateau
To leave a short day before the summit push, the team decides to do two days in one. This means a nine hour hike over a shadeless heathland plateau. How hard can it be?
On leaving the cloud forest, the path ascends through heath and scrub skirting the Shira Ridge on to Shira 1 camp. Suddenly, there it is, the solid mass of Kibu grey against blue. Our goal is in sight.
Shira 1 camp (3600m) consists of a wooden hut and what looks like a circular toilet. I didn’t venture in. Lunch looks like yesterday’s leftovers but hits the spot. Off again, the rising sun soon drenches me in sweat.
Shira 2 camp (3850m) appears and disappears as we hike the rolling terrain. It’s now desert hot so I’m careful to drink every 15 minutes.
A radio antenna signals the day’s end. The Cathedral (a large outcrop) stands proud with Mt Meru poking above the clouds. A simply magical place.
Day 3 – Great Barranco Valley
Another beautiful day. The trail now snakes over a moon-like landscape. Kili’s south face fills the horizon while huge volcanic rocks dot the landscape.
Adding a splash of colour, Giant Lobelia, scary as triffids, bring some green to the picture. The going is pleasant as clouds drift in and snag on Kili.
At Lava Tower (4640m) we luncheon with massive crows sporting distinctive white tipped beaks. It’s hard to believe we are only 170m lower than Mt Blanc in France.
It’s staggeringly beautiful as we descend into the Barranco Valley. Crystal clear streams and pools emerge, fed by Kili’s melt water. As we reach Barranco camp, we’re swamped in low mist recreating a scene from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World.
Signed in and tents up, it’s time to explore this pleasant camp. The long drop toilets need much to be desired but the views win the day. Especially the Barranco or Breakfast Wall, our starting point tomorrow.
Day 4 – Over the Wall to Karanga camp
300m of volcanic wall stands in front of us as we leave for Karanga camp. It looks ominous but although tricky in places, we are soon over it taking in the views. I’m just glad I wasn’t loaded up like the porters, especially at this altitude.
A shorter walk today but still stunning. Heim glacier sparkles in the sun, looking more like a heavy snow fall than a glacier. 2060 is the date given for Kili’s final melt down.
At camp, the zips on my tents push my patience. The equipment looks old and abused, dirty and stained. The short day means time to regroup mentally and prepare for the penultimate leg to base camp.
Base camp and Kilimanjaro summit
Day 5 – Base camp
I’m pleased we made the extra effort to get to Shira 2 in one day. We have a 11pm summit start tonight so it will be nice to have time to relax. I’m feeling good. I’ve have drunk every 15 to 20 minutes whilst walking and eaten as much as I can. Uhuru here I come!
Vegetation is now thin and sparse. More desolate and barren, the path winds out in front taking us to a ridge on which sits Barafu camp (4681m). On the horizon you can see long drop toilets out of place among the rocks. I make a mental note not to get too close.
A small climb and we’re there. A shanty town of huts, toilets and tents. Its busy. Nervous new arrivals, conquerors full of cheer with those not so lucky, crestfallen and beat.
Photos, chats, dinner and sleep, if possible. This is it, why we’re all here. To summit the highest peak in Africa.
11pm and a tap on the tent. I’m so wrapped up all I need is embalming. On the trail head-torches flicker upwards. Not as cold as expected, it’s pole-pole into the star lit night.
Day 6 – Standing on Uhuru
The final push is about the same as climbing Ben Nevis (1344m), without the benefit of a bar at the bottom. We stumble upwards, heads down, sucking in hard in the cold night air.
About half way, it was hard to tell in the black, we passed an Asian girl on her knees supported by her walking poles. Reality hits home of where we are and the dangers we face.
Slowly, the sun began to put its hat on. After several rest stops, the crater rim can be seen and spirits lift. Fellow hikers file in from the right and bingo, it’s there, Stella Point (5765m – higher than any point in Europe). Amazingly people turn back and descend here.
With stunning glaciers on our left and dormant ash cone on our right, the final 30 minute ridge walk to the summit seems like a dream scape. At Uhuru Peak (5895m) smiling faces are turned into millions of pixels, the obligatory crowning photos.
A few more steps and I’ve made it. These occasions bring out different emotions in people, for me it’s all about the views.
With views all around, the descent is slow as try to take in where I am. Africa lies beneath us as we pass the Ice Cathedral, the huge crater mouth and the Southern Icefield. Only on the summit do you get the full beauty and majesty of the glaciers. It’s like being in a huge tub of vanilla ice cream.
The descent to Barafu is hot but it’s chance to give encouragement to those still going up. A couple hours rest and it’s off again this time to Millenium camp, then onward to Mweka camp (3090m – still high!) for the night.
Day 7 – Mweka gate
The final day. After breakfast, tips are given and the crew sing for us. It’s a lovely ending to a iconic trip. But Tanzania still has one last treat. The route takes us through pristine rainforest. I could have spent hours here, shrouded in mist, a huge botanical garden.
Porters pass us, happy with their bonuses and the thought of seeing families. Mweka gate though, attacks the senses. Bright colour, noise and vehicles seem alien. Our final signatures show we’re back and a certificate proves we made it.